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A CurtainUp London London Review
A Midsummer Night's Dream with Judi Dench

Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,

— Titania
A Midsummer Night's Dream with Judi Dench
Charles Edwards as Oberon and Judi Dench as Titania (Nobby Clark)
This is the making of theatrical history. Opening at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, based on the designs for an earlier Rose Theatre, is A Midsummer Night's Dream starring Dame Judi Dench, who at the age of 75 was cast by Sir Peter Hall to recreate her role as Titania, which she had first played for him in 1962. The basis for this choice was Dench's Oscar winning role as Queen Elizabeth in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love and so in the opening scene of this production we see the Queen leaving a room full of, first kneeling, then sleeping courtiers to sneak off and join in a play. She wears her royal gown throughout, a red wig with jewels and like the real Elizabeth, the inspiration for Spenser's The Faerie Queene, she is surrounded by younger men who dance attention.

So how does it seem? Vocally Dench is perfect, her lovely, lovely voice which has a richness and depth, a fragility and beauty, still astounds us. The words when she first spies Bottom, a a very hairy but rather cuddly donkey (think plush toy), (Oliver Chris) "What angel wakes me from my flowery bed," almost earned a round of applause were it not for the deference in which we hold Shakespeare's verse.

Dench has a magnificent stage presence but somehow her Oberon (Charles Edwards) is a lot less magnificent than her favourites, Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex, or Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester, would have been. Of course that is where the parallel has to stop and Sir Peter Hall does not dramatically develop the theme. There is no way Queen Elizabeth I would have allowed Oberon to win, remember the Earl of Essex was executed for his failures in Ireland and she signed his death warrant. Interesting that the lesser meaning nowadays of dotage, that of foolish infatuation has become synonymous with foolish old age, so when Oberon regrets his spell, "Her dotage now I do begin to pity" we smile.

For those of us who like history, there is another harking back to the cast of the past: in the 1968 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream where Dench played Titania, Diana Rigg was Helena to Helen Mirren's Hermia. In 2010 Rachael Stirling, who is a tall and very good actress like her mother Diana Rigg, plays Helena. Shame Helen Mirren has no daughter! But wouldn't that have been fun, three Dames of the British Empire — Dench, Rigg and Mirren — playing Titania, Helena and Hermia in a senior production? Rachael Sterling is magnificent as the spaniel, pleading and desperate and as the outraged maypole. You can hear her mother's beautiful intonation which made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

Bottom is played with great enthusiasm by Rachael Sterling's real life boyfriend Oliver Chris. This homespun mechanical with the Birmingham Midlands accent is the life and soul of the party, like the star of an amateur dramatic company and his scenes with Titania are very good fun, actually making Bottom and Titania a better couple than Oberon and Titania! As Titania snuggles up to the donkey she looks very comfortable and cosy as if in a fur rug. Even in the scenes with Thisbe (Leon Williams as Francis Flute) there is no limit to Bottom's ardour in his passionate on the mouth kissing which so disconcerts the other man!

The other parts tend to be overshadowed by these three actors and I found the hyper-manic Puck (Reece Ritchie) interpretation bizarre but it must have been the director's choice. Hall's production will be remembered for its star not for itself or the ensemble acting although the Pyramus and Thisbe play is great fun. Theseus (Julian Wadham) and Hippolyta (Susam Salmon) are a country squire and his country wife, not allowed to be regal of course!

The set is very plain with silhouetted branches casting shadows, fairy lights as stars and a black shiny floor. The courtiers and the fairies are in black and white Tudor clothes like the Elizabethan needlepoint called "blackwork" (introduced to England by Elizabeth I's father's first wife Catherine of Aragon) and the mechanicals wear hessian smocks with real smocking stitches. On opening night, I heard two critics having a heated discussion as to whether the donkey was more like a pony than a donkey!

Playing so close to Valentine's Day with all those declarations of undying love is this satirical play about infatuation and the excesses and inconstancy of romantic love with an interesting twist in an older woman's convincing portrayal of a fairy queen.

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A Midsummer Night's Dream with Judi Dench
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sir Peter Hall

Starring: Judi Dench, Rachael Sterling, Oliver Chris
With: Julian Wadham, Susan Salmon, Msimisi Dlamini, William Chubb, Annabel Scholey, Tam Williams, Ben Mansfield, James Laurenson, Leon Williams, William Chubb, Simon Scott, Timothy Speyer, Reece Ritchie, Sophie Scott, Charles Edwards, Richard Keightley, Disun Sookarry
Associate Director: Cordelia Monsey
Set and Costume Design: Elizabeth Bury
Music: Mick Sands
Movement: Laila Diallo
Lighting: Peter Mumford
Fight Director: Kate Walters
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0871 230 1552
Booking to 20th March 2010
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th February 2010 performance at the Rose Theatre, 24-26 High Street, Kingston, KT1 1HL (Rail: Kingston)

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